Mexico’s culture of impunity part 1: Mediation in lieu of justice

While Mexico’s drug trade is far from vanished, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) recently stated that “there is no longer a war.” He has a new strategy. The president says they are no longer trying to arrest drug lords, but instead want to look at the causes of violence.

“We have not detained the bosses [of criminal gangs] because this is not our main function. The government’s main function is to guarantee public security…What is important to me is lowering the number of homicides, robberies, that there are no kidnappings. This is what is essential! Not the spectacular, because we lost a lot of time in this and it resolved nothing.”

To achieve this, AMLO appears to be looking to religious groups.

As part of his National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo – PND) AMLO is asking religious groups, among other institutions, to have their say on the three core ideas of the PND: justice and rule of law, wellness and economic development.

This sounds like a positive step, however, when considering the government’s current strategies for tackling crimes and guaranteeing public security, it becomes apparent that Mexico has a lot of work to do.

Inadequate action

Moderate to severe violations against the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) are common in some parts of Mexico. Although these violations almost always involve criminal acts, the Mexican government has rarely taken adequate action to intervene, uphold the right to FoRB, or ensure perpetrators are brought to justice within the country.

State government narratives about FoRB violations are often confusing and contradictory, and are frequently aimed primarily at reducing statistics of FoRB cases. This along with a lack of full and thorough investigations means that a culture of impunity surrounds the majority of cases.

In government meetings held during CSW’s recent fact-finding assignment to Mexico, it was apparent that officials have little confidence in their laws, or rather, rule of law. They point to the fact that although strong laws exist on a general level, people do not comply with them and do not experience negative consequences.

Mediation, negotiations and agreements

This creates a cycle in which people break the law and government officials seek to ‘mediate,’ ‘negotiate’ or find an ‘agreement’ between victims and perpetrators, rather than engage justice mechanisms. Aside from concerns about government unwillingness to uphold rule of law, this approach also has a fundamental flaw: if people won’t obey the law, why would they obey an
‘agreement’?

This language of ‘agreements’ in the face of human rights violations and criminal activity is problematic. Agreements can only work if the government intervenes before a crisis and should only be a solution if no crimes have taken place. However CSW has observed that many agreements have been negotiated by lawyers and government officials who lack a strong understanding of FoRB. As a result, agreements do not result in just outcomes and may invite further restrictions on FoRB – for example an agreement with the community from Buenavista Bahuitz, Margaritas Municipality, Chiapas State forbids children from speaking about their faith and forces Protestants in the community to pay a yearly special tax.

If the negotiation of agreements is done in a timely way before any crimes have been committed, then this form of community mediation could be a constructive approach. Even in these cases, however, the government needs to ensure that they have a FoRB expert on hand to review the agreement and make sure it is in line with the Mexican Constitution and international law.

If a crime has been committed, an agreement is not sufficient. If someone has been subjected to violent assault, had their property damaged, been arbitrarily imprisoned, or forcibly displaced, those are criminal acts and must be treated accordingly.

This is the only way to guarantee public security in the long term. If perpetrators of crimes are not prosecuted, the crimes will be committed again; a culture of impunity becomes the norm when there is no justice for victims. There cannot be an exception that it is acceptable to commit crimes when it is for religious reasons or in the name of Uses and Customs.[1]

Children from the El Encanto Protestant community in Chiapas

This culture is well demonstrated by the case of the Protestant community of El Encanto in the Las Margaritas Municipality in Chiapas. On 29 November 2016, members of the community in the village had their access to water cut off. Despite making complaints to the town hall, the Human Rights Commission and the Chiapas state government, these community members still do not have access to water. Violations have persisted and the failure of the government to intervene meant that in June 2018 the families were denied access to sewage.

Children from the community have been forced to take classes in a neighbouring village after they were barred from attending school in El Encanto by the local assembly.

‘The breakdown of rule of law’

A failure to treat these acts as actual crimes contributes to Mexico’s exceedingly high levels of impunity and the breakdown of rule and law. These cases are usually straightforward and easy to prove – it is rarely disputed that violence took place, but people often attempt to justify it by saying it was done under Uses and Customs and for religious reasons, prompting the government to treat the crime differently.

If Mexico is to develop a culture centered around justice and rule of law the government must address these cases correctly and according to its own laws.

[1]Mexico’s Law of Uses and Customs allows indigenous communities to govern themselves according to traditional laws and customs. The law is meant to be exercised in line with the individual rights guaranteed in the constitution, but in reality the government at both the state and federal level does little to enforce this. As a result, the rights of religious minorities are routinely violated.

By CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer

Click here to read part 2, also available in Spanish.